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Abdulrahman Alharbi went from victim to suspect to plaintiff in the year following to the Boston Marathon bombing.

Alharbi was injured in the explosion that had killed several victims and injured hundreds more. He was also the subject of an investigation by authorities, although he was never charged with any crimes. Since that time Alharbi has been in the crosshairs of media personality Glenn Beck, who has said publicly he believes Alharbi to have bankrolled the terrorist attack. Those comments have resulted in a defamation lawsuit, with Alharbi claiming there was “actual malice” behind Beck's statements.

The case will depend on a number of variables including how the courts interpret the relevant statute with respect to Alharbi’s status in the public eye and credibility of Beck’s sourcing. That's according to Michael Niborski, of Pryor Cashman LLC, an expert in defamation law. Niborski has represented public figures including Aretha Franklin, Martha Stewart, Las Vegas casino owner Steve Wynn, and the Anschutz Entertainment Group. 

There is a difference, he said, between stating an inflammatory opinion and making statements that can be judged true or false. It is in stating that Alharbi was, as a matter of fact, the “money man” in the bombing without have done due diligence to substantiate the claim, the courts may take a harder stance on Beck.

If it is not true, “it’s a pretty damaging thing to have out there,” Niborksi said. He suspects that Beck will make a case that his statements were rooted in credible information. “Beck will probably draw on some information he learned from a source, or something he read,” Niborski said.

However, if the statements were made without any substantial information to back them up, and the damage done to the plaintiff’s reputation is obvious, then Beck, alongside co-defendants The Blaze, Mercury Radio Arts. Inc. and Premiere Radio Networks, Inc., may find themselves in trouble.

The fact that the plaintiff is Saudi, as well as a victim in the bombing, could also be in play when determining the degree that Alharbi’s reputation was tarnished. Niborski likened being called a terrorist to being accused of child molestation or other crimes the public may deem particularly unsavory.

He also said there is a different threshold in defamation cases with regards to what sort of “figure” Alharbi is considered. He said it is likely Alharbi will try to make a case that he is a “private” figure and will therefore be afforded different protections from the media compared to public figures, like politicians and celebrities.

It is also possible he could be considered a public figure with respect to a certain instance. Since Alharbi was interviewed by authorities with respect to the bombings and this information was reported out to the public, Alharbi could be held to a different standard.

The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court of Massachusetts, states Beck’s comments did “grave injury” to the plaintiff. “The Defendant, Glenn Beck, with the active participation of the distributor defendants, repeatedly and falsely identified Mr. Alharbi as an active participant in the crimes that were committed April 15, 2013, repeatedly questioned the motives of federal officials in failing to pursue or detain Mr. Alharbi and repeatedly and falsely accused Mr. Alharbi of being a criminal who had funded the attacks that took place at the Boston Marathon. Those statements were made widely and publicly. Those statements were false and did grave injury to the plaintiff,” the complaint reads.

“This is not a tabloid type story,” Niborski said comparing it to the sorts of claims that celebrities regularly deal with. If the general public’s views are, in fact, meaningfully altered by Beck’s statements, unlike in the instances where there is a saturation of claims against a celebrity that, for the most part, does not really change anyone’s mind about that particular celebrity, than the plaintiff has a stronger case, he said.

Peter Haley, who is representing Alharbi, said in a statement he is representing his client through the Boston Bar Association Marathon Pro Bono Project and that Alharbi “does not wish to comment publicly on the case at this time.” “Mr. Haley is available to confirm the status of the case and his participation in the BBA Marathon Pro Bono Project, but will not, at this time, otherwise address the substance of the matter outside of court,” according to an email correspondence with Progressive Law Practice.

The complaint can be viewed here.

Dan Sabbatino is an award winning journalist whose accolades include a New York Press Association award for a series of articles he wrote dealing with a small upstate town’s battle over the implications of letting a “big-box” retailer locate within its borders. He has worked as a reporter and editor since 2007 primarily covering state and local politics for a number off publications.

Last modified on Saturday, 05 April 2014
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